Traps and Shadows in Noor Naga’s Egypt Novel

20 June, 2022
Georges Bah­goury, “Cairo,” acrylic and paper maché on can­vas, 2007 (cour­tesy estate of Georges Bahgoury).


If an Egypt­ian Can­not Speak Eng­lish, a nov­el by Noor Naga
Gray­wolf Press 2022
ISBM 9781644450819


Ahmed Naji

Trans­lat­ed from the Ara­bic by Rana Asfour


We find our­selves in Cairo in a post-2016 world, when a bald Amer­i­can girl arrives in what she feels is her home­land and the ori­gin of her roots. Read­ing between the lines, we gath­er that she’s left Amer­i­ca, flee­ing from a sad­ness that she does not dis­close. We know, because Noor Naga tells us from the first chap­ters that the Amer­i­can girl keeps shav­ing her head, but what she does not tell us is the rea­son behind her deci­sion to remain bald. We also know that she is the daugh­ter of Egypt­ian immi­grant par­ents, that she grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in New York, and that her father is a prac­tic­ing physi­cian in a clin­ic in the heart of Man­hat­tan. Shocked at her deci­sion to vis­it Egypt, her moth­er nev­er­the­less makes the nec­es­sary calls, after which the daugh­ter arrives, stays in a lux­u­ri­ous apart­ment in one of Cairo’s most afflu­ent neigh­bor­hoods, and obtains a tidy job as an Eng­lish teacher for adults, at the British Council.

Noor Naga’s nov­el is pub­lished by Gray­wolf Press.

Noor Naga begins her nov­el If an Egypt­ian Can­not Speak Eng­lish with the promise of intense dra­ma. An escape sto­ry, a trip home, secrets to unrav­el, but what tru­ly gets one involved in the read­ing is her immense­ly flu­id prose, as each sen­tence forces one to stop long enough to savor it slow­ly — prose that is high­ly com­plex and supreme­ly intelligent.

When I arrived at Ram­ses Sta­tion in Cairo, the air was peo­ple. Nowhere you looked wasn’t peo­ple. They clogged every street and then piled on top of each oth­er in build­ings twen­ty sto­ries high. Many were not even Egypt­ian. You could turn into an alley and find fifty Sudanese men, bluer than black, with cheeks like shoul­der blades and ankles like knives, or else women as tall as I am, women so pale you could see rivered blood at their wrists and neck. I heard twen­ty Ara­bics in my first week and wher­ev­er I went peo­ple asked me — some­times in Eng­lish because of the hair — Where you from?

Naga’s nov­el is divid­ed into three main parts. In the first move­ment of the operetta, there are short pieces, each one lim­it­ed to two pages in length. They all begin with “What if” and have a tran­scen­dent feel to them: “If you don’t have any­thing nice to say, should your moth­er be pun­ished?” The nar­ra­tion alter­nates between two voic­es, the Amer­i­can girl and a boy from Shobrakheit, who appears as a part­ner in the nov­el. Naga describes his upbring­ing in a vil­lage on the mar­gins of the Egypt­ian coun­try­side, raised by a pos­ses­sive grand­moth­er who envelopes him in a pri­vate world, in which she feeds him with her hands. The two share a bed and bathe togeth­er. When his grand­moth­er dies in 2011, he heads to Cairo with his cam­era, a gift from his grand­moth­er, only to arrive in a city that is in the midst of a rev­o­lu­tion. He soon finds him­self part of a new group being shaped by the city’s tumul­tuous upris­ing, streets, city squares and gas bombs.

Enrap­tured by the new social order, he cap­tures it all on his cam­era, and it’s not long before the TV sta­tions and news agen­cies are rac­ing to pub­lish the pho­tographs he takes from the heart of Tahrir, the Square, that doc­u­ment the clash­es tak­ing place. Two years lat­er, the rev­o­lu­tion is defeat­ed, and the now world-class pho­tog­ra­ph­er from Shobrakheit los­es his sense of pur­pose and ques­tions the mean­ing of his exis­tence, hang­ing up his cam­era and refus­ing to take any more pho­tos that would doc­u­ment a “fake real­i­ty.” With dwin­dling resources, he moves into a hov­el in one of Cairo’s bor­oughs. His sub­se­quent addic­tion leads him on a path of self-destruction.

By this point, read­ers can eas­i­ly pre­dict how the rest of the sto­ry will unfold. The Amer­i­can girl will meet the boy from Shobrakheit, they’ll fall in love, until it all dra­mat­i­cal­ly falls apart. It’s a tale that’s been repeat­ed over and over again in fic­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the years fol­low­ing Egypt’s 2011 rev­o­lu­tion. A pop­u­lar tale because of its inti­ma­cy, espe­cial­ly for a read­er like me who lived his life in down­town Cairo and wit­nessed the begin­ning and end of dozens of such sim­i­lar sto­ries. More­over, for the past decade or so, this is a theme that has been recur­rent in Egypt­ian lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in Ara­bic. What Naga does how­ev­er, is turn this straight­for­ward, sim­plis­tic theme into hor­rif­ic scenes and land­scapes in which social class and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ty clash, cul­mi­nat­ing in a trag­ic crime.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ary street artists stamped out by Sisi mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship (pho­to Abdo El Amir).

Egyptian Literature

The his­to­ry of Egypt­ian lit­er­a­ture, writ­ten in Eng­lish, can be divid­ed into two phas­es. The first is Egypt­ian writ­ers born and raised in Egypt for whom Eng­lish formed an essen­tial part of their edu­ca­tion due to their social class, such as Wajuih Ghali, Samia Ser­ageldin, Ahdaf Soueif and oth­ers. A sense of alien­ation presents itself in var­i­ous forms in the writ­ings of that peri­od, main­ly a sense of not belong­ing with­in the class the writer occu­pies. The only excep­tion, per­haps, is Wajuih Ghali, who rebelled against his own class, cer­tain­ly in the nov­el Beer in the Snook­er Club.

The sec­ond phase includes writ­ing from the chil­dren of Egypt­ian immi­grants, which began in the ‘70s and con­tin­ues to this day. Accord­ing to offi­cial Egypt­ian gov­ern­ment fig­ures, the num­ber of Egyp­tians resid­ing abroad is close to ten mil­lion. Esti­mates from the Egypt­ian embassy in the Unit­ed States put the fig­ure of those who live in the US at one mil­lion, though this is con­tra­dict­ed by the US Cen­sus Bureau, which esti­mates Egypt­ian emi­grants at a quar­ter of a mil­lion. Regard­less of these dif­fer­ent fig­ures, this nation of mil­lions liv­ing in the dias­po­ra has become part of the mod­ern Egypt­ian iden­ti­ty, reshap­ing the mean­ing of Egypt, and pre­sent­ing its image through its artis­tic and lit­er­ary works, espe­cial­ly as many with­in this group pos­sess mate­r­i­al and sci­en­tif­ic capa­bil­i­ties that allow them the pow­er of autonomous rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or as Naga asks in her nov­el, “If an Egypt­ian can­not speak Eng­lish, who is telling his story?”

Note­wor­thy is the fact that Egyp­tians resid­ing abroad who speak dif­fer­ent lan­guages — and like the pro­tag­o­nist of the nov­el study in pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties — trans­fer, accord­ing to the Egypt­ian government’s lat­est fig­ures, more than 30 bil­lion dol­lars annu­al­ly to the coun­try, rep­re­sent­ing 8% of the government’s total bud­get. And so the ques­tion that one asks one­self here is if the Amer­i­can girl, with her Eng­lish, is real­ly able to tell the tale of the boy from Shobrakheit.

Lan­guage, Eng­lish in this case, is an imped­i­ment that impos­es a rift with­in the life of the Amer­i­can girl mov­ing to Egypt, and those around her. Her poor com­mand of Ara­bic expos­es her and makes every­one ask her where she’s from. Add to that the writer’s deci­sion not to name her pro­tag­o­nist, to refer to her only as the “Amer­i­can girl,” seems to enforce that idea, despite her Egypt­ian her­itage and time spent in Egypt, lan­guage con­tin­ues to be a bar­ri­er to com­mu­ni­ca­tion, even after she falls in love with the boy from Shobrakheit and he moves in to live with her in her lux­u­ry apartment.

The boy from Shobrakheit, who was raised in the care of a smoth­er­ing grand­moth­er, sits next to the Amer­i­can girl while she eats and expects her, like his grand­moth­er, to feed him. The Amer­i­can fem­i­nist soon finds her­self in a rela­tion­ship that has turned her into a dis­pos­sessed woman — one who goes to work in the morn­ing, while her male part­ner sits at home wait­ing for her to come back to cook and clean, while he does noth­ing except watch videos on YouTube.

Noor Naga (pho­to cour­tesy Poet­ry Foun­da­tion) is an Alexan­dri­an writer who was born in Philadel­phia, raised in Dubai, and stud­ied in Toron­to. She is the author of a verse nov­el, Wash­es, Prays. She is win­ner of the Bron­wen Wal­lace Award, the RBC/PEN Cana­da Award, and the Dis­qui­et Fic­tion Prize. She teach­es at the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo.

The Amer­i­can girl soon los­es her­self with­in a world dom­i­nat­ed by Ara­bic and a sys­tem of social codes that she is unable to deci­pher or nav­i­gate. Sub­tly, changes with­in her behav­ior take shape in a before and after Egypt form. Pri­or to her arrival in Egypt, the Amer­i­can girl had been a polit­i­cal activist, who had once revolt­ed against a man and led a whole sub­way car against him in New York when she wit­nessed him harass­ing a veiled woman. The scene had been filmed and even gone viral. How­ev­er, in Egypt, we see her remain silent, when her friend, the own­er of a famous restau­rant, refus­es to seat two veiled girls in his estab­lish­ment, because their hijab would put off the “clean Egyp­tians,” the rich bour­geoisie, decked in West­ern brands.

In the sec­ond part of the nov­el as the two voic­es con­tin­ue to alter­nate, Noor Naga intro­duces detailed foot­notes that read­ers assume are like­ly guide­lines for famil­iar­iz­ing the non-Egypt­ian read­er with Egypt, such as its foods that include the dif­fer­ent vari­eties of man­goes, as well as foul, our tra­di­tion­al dish made of fava beans. How­ev­er, as an Egypt­ian, these foot­notes left me ill at ease, as they appeared to con­tain errors and fac­tu­al details that did not add up. I was par­tic­u­lar­ly drawn to one ref­er­enc­ing a Nubian writer by the name of Sayed Dhaif, whom I had nev­er heard of and could not find in any of my search­es. When I sent the author an enquiry, she admit­ted that she had, in fact, invent­ed the char­ac­ter. He was not real and nei­ther were a num­ber of oth­er “facts” in her footnotes.

And so it is that the author sets up sev­er­al traps in the nov­el for the read­er who looks upon lit­er­a­ture as an accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of its sub­ject. She ingen­u­ous­ly casts these traps to mim­ic the Amer­i­can girl’s inter­pre­ta­tion regard­ing the real­i­ties of life around her in Egypt, in which she fails to dis­tin­guish between the facts and lies that the boy from Shobrakheit makes up. The ensu­ing con­fu­sion and the dif­fi­cul­ty of dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing between the mul­ti­ple nar­ra­tives around what is real and what isn’t reach­es its cli­max when it comes to the details of the pair’s rela­tion­ship. The scene that the boy from Shobrakheit paints is one of unbri­dled love, while the Amer­i­can girl por­trays one of violence.

Trapped with­in a rela­tion­ship in which she is unable to dis­tin­guish between love and abuse, things esca­late slow­ly until at one point, the boy from Shobrakheit hurls a cof­fee table at her, inflict­ing severe wounds and bruis­es. It is only when the boy from Shobrakheit final­ly dis­ap­pears that she is able to return to the rem­nants of her for­mer life. She ends up meet­ing an Amer­i­can man liv­ing in Cairo, and fur­ther entan­gle­ments ensue when the boy from Shobrakheit dies, a mys­tery read­ers will have to work out for themselves.

Naga plays around with light and shad­ows, and like a magi­cian manip­u­lates the real­i­ty we see in front of us, mak­ing us doubt the verac­i­ty of what­ev­er her nar­ra­tors tell us right up to the moment when all is revealed in the last chapter.

Through­out the nov­el, Noor Naga toys, like a magi­cian, with light and shad­ow, obscur­ing cer­tain details while reveal­ing oth­ers, cast­ing doubt on every­thing, right up to the final chap­ter in which read­ers encounter the Amer­i­can girl, back in Amer­i­ca, dis­cussing, with col­leagues in a cre­ative writ­ing class, the final chap­ter of her novel.It’s a final chap­ter that read­ers of this nov­el aren’t privy to but rather gar­ner its con­tent from the com­men­tary of the Amer­i­can girl’s class­mates as they share their crit­i­cal take on it. The Amer­i­can nar­ra­tor’s col­leagues dis­cuss her nov­el fil­tered through the lens of a con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can val­ues ​​sys­tem as one col­league objects to her empa­thy with the boy from Shobrakheit, argu­ing that her writ­ing serves to per­pet­u­ate sym­pa­thy for the oppres­sor, and legit­imizes vio­lence against women.

Anoth­er read­er asks the writer for more details relat­ed to Egypt, min­ing her for excit­ing fea­tures that play to an imag­ined sen­si­bil­i­ty of a dis­tant place. All the while, the Amer­i­can girl is silent, hap­py to mere­ly take in the com­ments, as if the author, hav­ing explained her two pro­tag­o­nists in pre­vi­ous chap­ters, sur­pris­es Eng­lish read­ers with a mir­ror that reflects their own ques­tions. In the end, it is one col­league only who focus­es his com­ments on the tech­ni­cal com­po­nents of the nov­el and advis­es her to delete the last chap­ter, which is exact­ly what she does. Hence, its unavail­abil­i­ty with­in this nov­el despite every­one talk­ing about it in this novel’s final chapter.

If an Egypt­ian Can­not Speak Eng­lish is a nov­el much like Egypt­ian man­goes, whose taste lingers on the tongue long after the last bite.


Ahdaf SoueifCairoEgyptEgyptian novelsfictionrevolutionSamia SerageldinTahrir SquarethawraWajuih Ghali

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist (b. Mansoura, 1985) and criminal. Naji has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), The Use of Life (2014), and Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He was recently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. Follow him on Twitter @AhmedNajiTW


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